Guillermo del Toro Retrospective part 1: Ghosts, Bugs and Immortality

Del toro

The release of Guillermo del Toro’s Pacific Rim is looming ever closer, and it’s pretty safe to say it’s one my most anticipated movies of the coming summer season, which is to say I’m shitting my pants in anticipation on a daily basis. But is it really JUST because the film is basically Mobile Suit Gundam vs Godzilla? Well, make no mistake, that’s a huge part of it, but my laundry bill would be considerably lower if a talented director wasn’t steering the ship. And in anticipation of Pacific Rim, and to spread the joy of del Toro’s films, I’ll be doing a special two week look at his directorial efforts. All seven of them. Hey, the guy’s good, not prolific.

Del Toro’s been directing since the early 90s, exclusively in the sci-fi, horror and fantasy genres, and its fairly safe to say he’s built up an auteur status and a loyal army of fans, myself included. Working equally in Hollwood and his native South America, del Toro actually started as a makeup and effects artist, having learned the trade from the great Dick Smith, who did makeup and consultant work for movies like The Exorcist and Scanners.

Though del Toro directed several shorts and television episodes between 1985 and 89, his first big break came with…

cronos-criterion-cover-e1294204198753Cronos (1993)

Not many directors meet with massive critical success on their first outing, and del Toro’s first film Cronos winning nine Academy Awards in Mexico and the International Critics Week prize at Cannes was the kind of thing that would probably drive many young film makers mad with power. Which it honestly may have, in del Toro’s case, but God knows that isn’t a bad thing.

The story centers on a mysterious device created by an ancient alchemist, which grants eternal life (but with a terrible cost, you know how these things go). The device, which looks like an ornate golden beetle and actually contains an insect entombed in clockwork, is found by an old antiques dealer, who uses the device to get a little spring back in his step while dodging an evil old businessman and his nephew Ron Pearlman, who want the device for themselves.

Cronos is an excellent first outing, mainly because it doesn’t set its sights too high and try to cram in too many effects or set pieces. The only real effects on display are the Cronos device itself, mostly a collection of simple mechanisms and blown-up clockwork cogs, and some straightforward but effective makeup effects. The film doesn’t make the effects the real star of the show, wisely choosing to rely on the performances instead.

Cronos made del Toro a hot name in cinema, which led him, for better or worse, to his first American film….

 

Mimic (1997)mimic-movie-poster-1997-guillermo-del-toro

Effects driven sci-fi horror movies were a hot ticket in the late 90s, see Cube, Virus, Species, and a bevy of others. Mimic was a stab at bringing back the old giant bug schtick that played so well in the 50s. Didn’t work. Nope.

The plot focuses on an entomologist who created a new strain of cockroaches to combat a roach-carried plague. Three years after the “judas strain” wiped out the roach population (In New York, bear in mind, so already the film is asking us to suspend our disbelief a tad) they come back giant sized and as things usually go it’s up to one lady, her generic boyfriend, a sassy black cop with a limited lifespan, and a cute autistic kid to save the day.

Mimic….isn’t great. As far as this wave of late 90s effects horror flicks go, it’s pretty middling. There’s nothing wrong with it per-se, the effects are decent for the time and it even breaks the old rule about how kids never die in horror movies.

But it was a notoriously troubled production, with studio head and notorious meddler Bob Weinstein often visiting the set and demanding changes and reshoots, and Del Toro’s since disowned the film. It’s honestly not hard to see why, it’s barely recognizable as a Del Toro film, with only little glimmers of his usual tropes peeking here and there. It’s definitely the worst film in his (directorial) filmography, though that isn’t to say it isn’t kind of fun in its own way.

Dissatisfied, del Toro returned to Spain to start fresh, leading to….

 

the-devils-backbone-movie-poster-2001The Devil’s Backbone (2001)

Now we’re fuckin’ talking.

The Devil’s Backbone takes place in an orphanage in Spain, three years after the end of the Spanish Civil War. The protagonist, Carlos, is a newcomer in the orphanage who finds himself menaced by the orphanage’s cruel caretaker Jacinto by day and scared shitless by the ghost of a young boy by night.

Oh, also there’s an unexploded bomb in the courtyard. Spain, man. Hell of a place.

The film is a ghost story at its core, asking the question “what is a ghost?” in the tagline and promotional materials, and the film definitely seems more interested in asking lofty questions about the role of the supernatural rather than having things jump out and scare you. Although there is a good deal of that, and this is easily one of the most effective horror movies of the past few decades.

The film is definitely a back to basics approach for del Toro, lower on effects that most of his movies and relying more on atmosphere and storytelling to get the job done. The story deals with a lot of themes and tropes that pop up in most of del Toro’s works, especially the presence of a child protagonist and the fact that at the end of the day, human cruelty is presented as more threatening than any ghost or bogeyman, something we’ll see again later in Pan’s Labyrinth.

But that, sadly, will have to wait for next week.

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